Marolt: Figuring out how to do good

Roger Marolt
Cluster Phobic
Roger Marolt

I want to be generous. So, let’s talk about that, because I don’t think it’s as easy as it sounds. Sure, give your time, your money, your thoughts and your prayers; but how much and to whom? You can throw in “when,” too. Do you start when you are young or do you use those years to concentrate on work and wait until you’ve accumulated a big surplus, so you can really have a huge impact when you finally decide you have enough to start giving?

There is a story in the Gospels that I think is supposed to enlighten us on this topic, but it has mostly confused me. It’s the one where the repentant prostitute sits at the feet of the reclining Jesus at dinner and rinses his feet with a pitcher of extravagantly expensive oil. Someone remarks that it would have been better to sell the oil and use the money to feed the poor. Jesus retorts that the woman has done a good thing and reminds them, “you will not always have me, but the poor will always be with you.”

I see that it was a nice thing for the woman to do, but did Jesus really need that momentary indulgence? It does seem wasteful. Isn’t it true that the oil could have been sold for a pile of money that the poor could have significantly benefited from? This has baffled me for as long as I can remember, which isn’t very long, but I’m sure it puzzled me preceding that receding timeline, too. I mean, it has crossed my mind that the Vatican could liquidate its vast holdings of priceless artifacts to feed the hungry or do medical research.

Age is a good filter for letting into your recollections the significant events of your life. Recently a two-week chunk from a visit to a poor village in the heart of Mexico slipped through. It was a service trip through the middle school. I did it twice with two of my children in Peter Westcott’s sixth-grade classes. For an entire school year, the kids raised about $20,000 each time and, in the spring, we headed to Ignacio Allende, Chihuahua, to spread the wealth. We gave them the money and used our time there to repair and make improvements to the local schools.

On the last day of one of the trips, a few of us worked furiously to finish repairing a roof. We opted to forgo a fiesta the townspeople held on our behalves. When the mayor learned of our absence, she came to us in person and handed us a good chewing-out. Yes, our work was important, but not as valuable as our companionship. She could have as easily said, “There will always be leaks in that roof, but your friendship from the outside world we can’t replicate.”

Materialism is materialism, whether we indulge in it for ourselves or for others. We want to believe that money and things are not going to make us truly happy. Why should we assume that it will do it for others?

It takes humility to realize that our gifts cannot save the world, not singularly and not in sum, either. Look at our six-million years of existence. Despite the group effort, it hasn’t worked so far. But, what we do know is that we can make a big difference in one or a few people’s lives. Maybe, the key lies in that.

I know the actuaries among us will disagree, but I buy into the notion that every life is of infinite value. If this is true, then one life is as valuable as all lives combined. (Go ahead, do the math.) I think that’s beautiful, because it gives incredible force to the act of helping just one person in a significant way.

Clearly, money can help to ease the physical suffering of the poor. If we are able to fund that, we should. But, giving ourselves to the poor is comforting to their souls. Ultimately, which is more sustaining? Mother Theresa of Calcutta worked with limited resources. She couldn’t feed the poor, so she bathed, nursed and befriended them. She gave them dignity and made them know that they are loved.

As for the person who thought that the oil poured over Jesus’ feet should have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor, that was the easiest and most useless gift of all — an opinion about what somebody else should do.

Roger Marolt is trying harder than it appears. Contact him at